by GM Maurice Ashley
Last year I wrote an article that protested the high incidence of so-called “Grandmaster Draws” in top level chess. The world-wide outpouring of support for this point of view was tremendous: fans from Germany to Australia vented their ire via numerous emails at a practice that has entrenched itself in the world of professional chess.
GM Maurice Ashley
Hoping to start a trend, I decided to kick-off an international tournament based on my simple proposal: no draws before fifty moves have been played. The Generation Chess International, named for the company that I’ve created for the purpose of organizing fan-friendly events, was all that I could have hoped for. Despite snippets of criticism that considered fifty moves too long, the players showed what could happen when the draw offer no longer sits like a lazy hippo on the table.
The percentage of won games was extraordinary, made even more satisfying by the wins that materialized from so-called drawn positions. Of course, the whole enterprise was made easier by the fact that we had invited some real chess gladiators: GMs Larry Christiansen, Leonid Yudasin, Varuzhan Akobian, and IM Irina Krush, with most of the others being known for their true fighting spirit. IM Eugene Perelshteyn rose to the top and won in impressive style, confirming my suspicion that younger players would have a much easier time adjusting to the change.
I sat back and waited. While I continued to get emails almost every day congratulating my courage (how sad is it that what I said is actually considered courageous?), the movement I hoped would blossom never did. As with any new fashion statement, people usually follow the stars, but in this case most of my colleagues remained silent. There were a few exceptions, GM Nigel Short being the most public, who wholeheartedly sided with the concept. But neither players nor organizers chose to do anything, perhaps reckoning that the public would, in time, forget.
Surprisingly, the chess public did let the issue pass. A year later, there is no general outcry and it’s back to business as usual. Much in chess remains the same. Championships are being held in strange places, if they are ever held at all. Big-name sponsors continue to shy away from a sport with murky associations and no clear World Champion. The drop-off in adult membership in the USCF certainly gives one pause as many players wonder about what happened to all the excitement that once surrounded our game.
I do see some positives, however. Chess has made it to American cable TV. The newly formed Association of Chess Professionals seems to have a real vision for where chess should be going. The match between Vladimir Kramnik and Peter Leko seems finally certain to occur. Thankfully, we have the new generation of players upon us. The boom in scholastic chess in the US represents a potential new fan base to be created. It is a moment ripe with opportunity.
Re-enter Generation Chess. My team has spent a year looking for sponsors, and retooling for an even more serious push at helping to change the entrenched culture of the sport. It was harder work than we thought. Getting corporations on the Fortune 500 list to pay attention, especially in a time of economic downturn, often feels like trying to win a bishops-of-opposite color ending. Still, our confidence in chess remains strong. Things will get better. Our game has not survived and thrived all these centuries to be marginalized now.
So on May 18th, 2004 we were back at it. This time, we teamed with International Master Greg Shahade’s incredibly successful New York Masters. Greg and his partner, the incredibly dedicated John Fernandez, have been running this tournament for over two years now at the nicely refurbished Marshall Chess Club in New York City. To date the NYM has given away over $70,000 dollars, not bad for a little rapid tournament that ends in an evening. The list of sponsors is also impressive, not only for the names but also for the sheer numbers (To find out more, check out the website at www.newyorkmasters.com). It goes to show that there are some real chess fans out there who simply need to be mobilized around good, fresh ideas.
“Much in chess remains the same. Championships are being held in strange places, if they are ever held at all. Big-name sponsors continue to shy away from a sport with murky associations and no clear World Champion. The drop-off in adult membership in the USCF certainly gives one pause as many players wonder about what happened to all the excitement that once surrounded our game.”
Our twist was to make the 102nd Masters adhere to the no-draw rule. Our guaranteed first place prize of $500 brought out the largest NYM crowd to date, save for their 100th anniversary event. This time we decided that the players would have to play to forty moves; there were no complaints. The fighting spirit was evident from the start as major upsets smashed the hopes of some of the favorites: GM Jaan Ehlvest got bumped off by upstart NM Gregory Braylovsky, FM Asa Hoffman knocked off GM Julio Becerra, and the ever busy IM Jay Bonin got turned away by the young American hopeful Robert Hess. As early as round 2, GMs Aleks Wojtkiewicz and Alexander Stripunsky crossed swords in a game that where peace would have likely broken out in a New York minute. Instead, the fans on the Internet Chess Club were treated to a fight to the death.
In the final round, four players stood at 3-0. Under the current rules, our contenders could easily have been “gentlemen” (is that what GM stands for?) and taken guaranteed money (or is this what GM stands for?), as happened in the now infamous last round of the 2003 US Championships. Instead, they were forced to go all out. Not that our remaining quartet needed much prodding. Young firebrand GM Jan Gustafsson, who’s never met a king he liked, looked as if he would surely crush Hoffman, but the erstwhile sparring partner of Bobby Fischer defended like a genius and was even thinking about winning at the end. That game ended in a hair-raising yet satisfying 84 move draw: just how the fans like it. Meanwhile, future superstar GM Hikaru Nakamura and the ever combative Stripunsky clashed yet again, with $700 and glory on the line.
There could be no more poetic proof as to why there should be no agreed upon draws in chess than this gorgeous game. Imagine: this miniature work of art would have been lost to chess forever if the players had gone straight for the money. How many games like this have remained hidden in the minds of our great champions? The world will never know. But hopefully it will stand as a more potent argument for why the rules should be changed than any number of articles I can write. In the meantime, watch out for Generation Chess. We have a few more interesting ideas yet.